Russia's only operational aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, supports its new task force in the Mediterranean (photo: dpa)

Greece, Cyprus and Israel change the military balance in the Mediterranean

Greece, Israel and Cyprus have moved closer in an unprecedented political, military and energy relationship since Israeli-Turkish relations became strained from 2008 onwards. In the second of two reports, GIS guest writer Andreas Stergiou looks at the military character of the alliance, which has repercussions not only for Moscow and Ankara, but for Washington and the European Union.

THREE developments in the eastern Mediterranean since 2008 have produced a geopolitical balance reminiscent of the complicated alliances of the Cold War.

They are the emerging Greece-Cyprus-Israel alliance, the civil war in Syria and the post-Communist Kremlin’s policy in the region.

Moscow’s policy in the region was characterised by a slow but steady strategic and economic penetration into the countries of the eastern Mediterranean

The Western powers’ strategy there during the Cold War (1947-1991) was closely intertwined with three main factors: the region’s energy resources, the establishment and continued existence of Israel, and the maintenance of Nato’s south-eastern flank.

Permanent control by the West was kept solid by:

• The admission of Greece and Turkey to Nato in the 1950s

• The deployment, since 1946, of the US Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean

• The strategic alliances of Israel with the US and Turkey which go back to the 1950s

• And Israel’s 1979 Camp David peace accords with Egypt

However, these events came at a price. Greece and Cyprus, Turkey’s traditional enemies, were prevented from establishing close ties with Israel and as Turkey secured Israel the strategic advantages it needed, they became of less importance.

On the other hand, Russia's policy in the region was characterised by a slow but steady strategic and economic penetration into the countries of the eastern Mediterranean.

That access was always achieved primarily through indirect tactics; rather than taking overt political actions, Russia supported various political groups and governments in a bid to weaken ties with the West and extend its influence southwards.

The repeated presence of a Russian fleet has also been a powerful demonstration of its interest in the region.

But since Israeli-Turkish relations became strained from 2008, Greece, Israel and Cyprus have moved closer in an unprecedented political, military and energy relationship. This has been boosted by the significant gas discoveries in the eastern basin of the Mediterranean.

Joint exercise

Both the United States and the European Union have vigorously supported exploiting these energy deposits, in a bid to reduce the dependence of EU countries on Russia.

Turkey, a Nato member, has opposed the project and contests the ownership of the fields. It threatened Cyprus with military action even while US company Noble Energy was still carrying out exploratory drilling off the island’s southern coast.

As a result, the recently forged Israel-Cyprus-Greece alliance has a well-shaped military character. Indeed, in spring 2012, Israel and the United States invited Greece to join them in a joint military exercise.

This annual naval event in the Mediterranean, codenamed Reliant Mermaid, was first held in 1998 and originally involved Turkey. It was cancelled in 2011 when Turkey withdrew and in 2012, Greece was invited to take its place.

Turkey and Russia agreed to co-operate on energy and nuclear power to counterbalance this US-EU backed alliance, fuelling a new form of US-Russian conflict in the region

The exercise was renamed Noble Dina and the overall mission of the training was changed from search and rescue exercises to attack and defend scenarios which included repelling enemy assaults, anti-submarine warfare and aircraft operations.

Energy resources

The fact that the Greek and Israeli air forces simulated repelling an attack on offshore natural gas and oil rigs showed that any future threat from Turkey was being covered.

Israel also replaced the strategic depth it had lost through the termination of the defence cooperation it had forged with Turkey.

In this context, when Benjamin Netanyahu became the first Israeli Prime Minister to visit Cyprus, the two countries signed a military agreement in February 2012 allowing the Israeli Air Force to use the airspace and territorial waters around the island to protect vital energy resources.

As in the Cold War era, this geostrategic shift of power triggered a new round of antagonism among the regional players and provoked a response.

Turkey and Russia agreed to cooperate on energy and nuclear power to counterbalance this US-EU backed alliance, fuelling a new form of US-Russian conflict in the region.

The latter emerged as a result of Russia’s growing economic influence in the countries of the south-eastern Mediterranean and as an extension of rivalry intensifying in central Asia between Russia and both the US and the EU, from the 1990s onwards.

Syrian issue

Russia has been attempting to strengthen its position in the region’s markets by establishing energy and defence cooperation with every country in the region - Greece, Turkey and Cyprus - while the US has been seeking to secure its vital interests there.

For example, Russian arms have been the preferred choice for Greek Cypriot authorities because Cyprus is not a member of Nato and is under no obligation to the military alliance.

However, Turkey-Russia cooperation is hampered by the dangerous situation in Syria, where Russia is reluctant to take more serious steps over the government’s actions against opposition forces.

Russia retained a tiny military base at Tartus on Syria’s Mediterranean coast - its last stronghold outside the former Soviet Union. This meant that its warships were not forced to return to their Black Sea bases through the Bosphorus Strait, controlled by Turkey.

Russia has been a close ally of Syria since the 1973 Arab-Israeli war and has regularly supplied weapons and military equipment in conflicts, while its civilian technical advisers work irregularly on Russian-built air defence systems and repair planes and helicopters in Syria.

It was compelled to evacuate the last of its personnel from Syria as the crisis developed, but because of Russian interests in Cyprus’s troubled banks with deposits and enormous quantities of bank shares, and its solid existing political, economic and military ties to Cyprus, it has sought to replace its dismantled base with a new one on the island.

Moscow’s decision this year to dispatch a permanent fleet to the Mediterranean has precipitated a complex and very explosive geopolitical and economic equation

Nato request

The longer the civil war in Syria continues, the more complicated matters will become for Western countries because of the Kurdish minority living in Syria; refugees crossing the borders into Turkey and seeking shelter by travelling through Greece to other EU countries; and stray shells landing on Turkish villages near the Syrian border.

Turkey has already demanded backing from its Nato allies. In the summer of 2012, after Syrian troops shot down a Turkish warplane, it called for a convention of Nato members under Article 4 of the organisation’s charter, which provides for consultations when a member state feels its territorial integrity, political independence or security is under threat.

By invoking Article 4 - it was only the second time in Nato’s 63-year history that this had happened - rather than Article 5, which calls for military action, Turkey signalled that it wanted action to be taken against Syria.

Furthermore, as the Syria crisis escalated, Russia gradually augmented its naval presence in the region. Russia's decision to dispatch a permanent fleet of five or six combat ships to the Mediterranean in 2013 to defend its interests in the region has precipitated a complex and very explosive geopolitical and economic equation in a very sensitive area for Nato. The fleet includes frigates, cruisers and the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov at its core.

British bases

The fleet’s activities have no precedent since the Cold War in terms of size of forces involved, the measures employed, the territorial span, the number of exercises or the scheduling and methodology of the drills.

The Turkish navy has also been patrolling the area’s international waters more actively since September 2011.

British military sovereign bases are located in Cyprus, while the US Navy has a support activity facility at Souda Bay in Crete. US vessels, normally stationed in Naples, regularly visit that naval base and those visits have been more frequent since 2012.

All things considered, one can conclude that a new Cold War is under way in the eastern Mediterranean. It is a new East-West confrontation, backed however by other countries.

And there is a great difference between the classic Cold War and the new one. During the previous encounter the front lines as well as the allies, enemies and blocs were clear. In the new one, they are not.

Andreas Stergiou is Assistant Professor at the Department of Political Science of the University of Crete and former Visiting Research Fellow at the Harry Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace of the Hebrew University.

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